Bill Clinton, Lagging Indicator

Bill Clinton has never been one to needlessly stake out an unpopular position, which tells us something important about his recent declaration that he’s “basically in support” of gay marriage: The issue is fast becoming a mainstream one in Democratic politics.

The former president had previously said that his position on gay marriage was “evolving,” but, really, does anyone think that Clinton has been that conflicted in his personal view? As on countless other issues, his public position has been guided not by his own values but by political pragmatism.

This was clear when he was drawn into the gay marriage debate during his presidency.

When Clinton first took office in 1993, he actually let his personal instincts on gay rights shape his policy, matter-of-factly seeking to overturn the ban on gays openly serving in the military. The military’s leaders weren’t ready, nor was rank-and-file public opinion, and Clinton paid dearly: His popularity sagged, the rest of his agenda was bogged down, and a reputation for clumsiness took hold.

The gays-in-the-military fiasco was emblematic of his first two years on the job, when Clinton abandoned the shrewd pragmatism that had brought him from obscurity in Arkansas all the way to the White House for a boldness he hadn’t previously exhibited (for example: his my-way-or-the-highway approach to health care reform). About all this produced was an electoral drubbing in 1994 and the prospect of defeat in 1996 unless he changed his ways.

Clinton’s post-’94 comeback strategy hinged on winning back married women and some white, working-class men. In his first two years, he’d made it easy for the G.O.P. to tag him as a clueless liberal, a captive of “cultural elites” who was in over his head as president. This image had to be reversed.

In 1995 and early 1996, Clinton succeeded masterfully at this task, thanks mainly to his willingness to call Congressional Republicans on their threats to allow a government shutdown in late ’95. By the spring of ’96, he had recovered his popularity and was well positioned to defeat Bob Dole, who had emerged as that year’s Republican candidate.

It was then that Dole and the G.O.P spied a potential opportunity to reestablish the caricature that had cost Clinton so dearly in ’94. With Hawaii seemingly poised to legalize gay marriage, Republicans introduced the Defense of Marriage Act, which would permit states to refuse recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states and which defined marriage at the federal level as a union between a man and a woman.

In response, Clinton’s White House press secretary, Mike McCurry, called the legislation “gay-baiting, pure and simple.” There was plenty of truth in that, but DOMA was also designed to bait Clinton into flashing the same instincts he’d shown early in his term, when he obliviously strolled into the gays-in-the-military minefield.

McCurry’s response briefly gave the G.O.P. hope, but Clinton quickly recognized the political danger. Gay marriage was a brand-new concept. Why risk a backlash in an election year? When the bill sailed through Congress, he signed it—early on a Saturday morning, with no cameras in sight.

And when Dole began running ads on Christian radio stations attacked Clinton on gay rights and abortion, Clinton launched his own response on the same stations: “Don’t be misled by Bob Dole’s attack ads,” the voiceover said. “President Clinton wants a complete ban on late-term abortions except when the mother's life is in danger or faces severe health risks, such as the inability to have another child. The president signed the Defense of Marriage Act, supports curfews and school uniforms to teach our children discipline.”

It can certainly be argued that Clinton didn’t need to sign DOMA (let alone publicize it on Christian radio) to win in ’96. By that point, so many other factors were working in his favor that his final 8-point margin probably wouldn’t have been affected much (if at all) had he vetoed DOMA. But the episode illustrated the pragmatism that has defined most of Clinton’s political career; he had no trouble rationalizing his way to supporting a “gay-baiting” bill.

The same pragmatism was on display in 2004, when Clinton privately advised John Kerry to endorse some of the proposed gay-marriage bans on various state ballots that fall—counsel that Kerry rejected.

It says something, then, that Clinton is now willing to publicly embrace gay marriage. After all, it’s not like he’s suddenly free from having to worry about the political implications of his statements—not with his wife well positioned to make another presidential run in 2016. If he thought endorsing gay marriage was anywhere near as risky now as it was in ’04 or ’96, Clinton wouldn’t have done it.

We’re fast approaching a time when support for gay marriage will be as customary for Democratic office-seekers as support for abortion and gun control now are; a time when Democratic office-holders who oppose it will be vulnerable to primary challenges. That time is still a few years off, and it will come sooner in some parts of the country than in others. But Bill Clinton’s latest move is proof that it’s on its way.

Bill Clinton, Lagging Indicator